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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 86–88 

Book Review

Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America

Theron F. Schlabach. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1988. 415 pages.

Reviewed by Marlin Adrian

Theron Schlabach has tackled an awesome task in this second volume of the series, “The Mennonite Experience in America.” The nineteenth century stands as the most prolific and enigmatic period in the history of American Mennonite experience. In fact, the nineteenth century may well have warranted two volumes in this four volume series. The present volume falls into four distinct parts.

A discussion of “humility theology” dominates the first four chapters. We are offered an expansion of Schlabach’s excellent and insightful analysis of the “Friedmann thesis” (MQR 57:222-40). Schlabach contends that Mennonites responded to their new environment in America by subtly altering their theology, adding “a new emphasis on humility.” His discourse on the complex relationship between Anabaptist/Mennonite piety, Pietism, and American Revivalism develops a theme introduced by Richard K. MacMaster in volume one of this series. Schlabach finds the roots of the new emphasis on humility in all three movements. His admission that “it is possible to draw distinctions between Anabaptism and Pietism too sharply” follows the lead of MacMaster. Schlabach concludes that although this theology failed to present to the larger American community a “vigorously prophetic witness,” it did offer an “authentic substitute for the suffering theme that America had removed from Mennonite experience.”

The second section of this book addresses the issue of Mennonite and Amish commitment to pacifism in the face of the Civil War. Pacifism has assumed center stage in the present century, and has become a “test” to determine the faithfulness of Mennonites to their Anabaptist heritage. Schlabach finds that the record of Mennonites during the Civil War compares favorably with that of both their predecessors and ancestors. Again, however, his analysis ends in a judgment of the failure of nineteenth-century Mennonites. He contends that nineteenth century Mennonites did not fail to teach about peace, but they did fail to challenge the “aggressive militarism” rampant in this period. Schlabach raises the important questions concerning why this was so, but offers no answers. He seems content with the implication that modern Mennonites should {87} be cautious not to fail similarly.

A third theme appears in the fifth and eighth chapters, curiously separated by the discussion of pacifism and the Civil War. These sections address “progressive movements” and attempts by both Mennonites and Amish to keep “the old order.” The issue of “authority” (and who is allowed to wield it), offers exactly the kind of interpretive key which could have been used to unify and organize the entire study of Mennonites in nineteenth-century America. Instead it peeks out from behind the more popular ethical concerns. In a sense both humility and pacifism hinge on the larger consideration of who exercises power in Mennonite communities. This is not a denial of the religious dimension of the Mennonite experience, for power in Mennonite culture exists primarily as spiritual power.

The final section covers the immigration of Mennonites from Russia in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Schlabach provides a concise and gracious presentation of factors involved both before and during the actual immigration. He contends that the Mennonites from Russia “added much to American Mennonitism.” He believes that they contributed “vision and experience and ability to create institutions,” and “added a depth of pacifism, especially to the GC branch whose commitment to that ancient Mennonite doctrine was eroding.”

The multifarious Mennonite groups and their equally various social and cultural situations within nineteenth-century America demand of the historian a keen and discerning eye. Only through the consistent use of a clearly defined interpretive perspective can such a mass of material become intelligible. In staking out his territory, Schlabach has overreached himself. He acknowledges the falsehood of the “dark ages” theory concerning Mennonite history in the early part of the century, but offers no clear alternative. Unable (or unwilling) to make a strong, cohesive statement about the first eighty years of the century, Schlabach offers a sweeping conclusion dealing with the final two decades (a period which rightfully belongs to a discussion of the twentieth century). This study begs for the strong editorial touch for which Schlabach himself is known.

History, like myth, functions within a culture as part of a community’s reflection on the past in order to comprehend and affect the present. However, at times it appears that {88} Mennonite historians exhibit an impatient desire to get beyond the historical material in order to focus on contemporary issues. Ironically, this is the reason that too often our present has a greater impact on our histories than our histories have on our present. Our desire to deal with the moral issues of our present life seems to blind us to the fact that our task involves the development of creative interpretations of our past. Judgments on the “failure” of our predecessors do not constitute legitimate historical interpretations. We must resist the temptation to become preachers instead of historians. Our task is not to admonish our brothers and sisters, but to interpret the experiences of our forebears.

Marlin Adrian is a student in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Virginia.

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